I grew up as a gay man in rural Wyoming, but I was scared to live as my authentic queer self in my politically conservative and socially homogeneous hometown and state. I came out fully only after I left.
My story seems to be similar to that of many queer rural Americans, who still face heightened heteronormativity, homophobia, and transphobia in their small towns and are told they should move to metro areas to find acceptance.
For the past several years, I lived in more liberal, urban areas as I pursued graduate school. More LGBTQIA+ friendly spaces, compared to rural areas, made me feel like I would always have to stay in cities to feel comfortable being myself.
However, as I was finishing my doctorate and applying for full-time faculty roles, I was looking for positions at large public research universities in remote towns that oftentimes serve rural students. That’s because, inspired by my rural upbringing, my research focused on rural students’ enrollment and success in higher education.
I took my first professor role at The University of Mississippi (UM) in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi. Since moving here in July of 2022, it’s been the first time in almost a decade I have lived as a gay man in a rural community. I was nervous to be back in a rural space where I didn’t always feel comfortable being myself at first, feelings exacerbated by others judging where I was moving and discussing how worried they were for me.
But over time, I have found more LGBTQIA+ enclaves and allies in rural Mississippi than I have ever imagined possible.
This past May, I took part in Oxford, Mississippi’s LGBTQIA+ Pride. A partnership between UM and the town of Oxford, the week of celebrations included events like a drag show and drag brunch, queer-focused speakers at the university, a festival outside the Student Union on campus, and even a parade around town.
I attended and learned from a speaker who detailed archival stories about rural queer Mississippians. I showed my support at the drag brunch, where numerous drag artists performed, including one who had the most amazing outfit and passionate performance I have ever seen at a drag show. I attended the festival, speaking with community partners and businesses who were friendly and welcoming. I walked in the parade with my queer flag and my dog decked out in a rainbow bandana. As I made my way through these festivities, I saw people by their houses, up on the balconies at the restaurants and bars in the town square, and outside their businesses, all cheering us on.
To be honest, this celebration was an incredible healing experience for me. No, this Pride wasn’t like the ones I had gotten used to in big cities, where tens of thousands of people marched in the streets and dozens of parties and events occurred. But I realized during Oxford’s Pride that this type of celebration was okay too – Oxford Pride was a different, smaller, and more community-oriented affair for queer individuals and allies in the town and nearby communities.
As a gay man who had such negative feelings about who I was and about my safety in rural America, it felt liberating to be back in a rural space that suddenly felt like home to my queer small-town self.
As hundreds of legislative efforts chip away at the safety of queer people around the country, especially in many states that have large numbers of rural counties, schools, and populations, these types of celebrations are more important than ever.
Pride was originally a riot to say “We’re here and we won’t go away quietly.” These small-town Prides have an essence of that feeling, one that isn’t glitzy or glamorous but lets people know LGBTQIA+ people exist and can thrive in rural spaces.
With the start of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month in June, remember our queer people out in rural areas. While it’s understandable people may feel a sense of hesitancy to be in small communities which have not always been safe for queer folks and many may not always associate rural America with home to queer people, we are here and our voices need to be heard.
For this gay man, I’m finding peace in being back in a rural community, being my authentic queer self.
Ty McNamee is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Higher Education at The University of Mississippi. Growing up as a gay, working-class student on a farm/ranch in rural Wyoming greatly influenced Ty’s research interests. He studies higher education access, success, and equity for rural students, particularly those from poor and working-class backgrounds and those who are queer, as well as college teaching and learning and faculty development at rural postsecondary institutions.